the truth about tumbleweeds

Tumbleweed (noun) a. A densely branched plant that breaks off near the ground after maturity and rolls about in the wind, aiding in the dispersal of seeds and spores by scattering them as it tumbles. b. A troublesome weed in central and western United States. c. A cliché of Western movies.

My friend Jim and I were sitting at his kitchen table, drinking beer and discussing the nature of home. We had each moved to Wisconsin from Montgomery, Alabama, following our spouses here—his wife, Trish, for a Ph.D. program; my husband, Joe, for a job. At the time, Wisconsin was the latest pit stop in a litany of cross-country moves, yet part of me wondered whether we’d finally found the place that would entice us to stay awhile.

I shared this with my friend Jim, but he was skeptical. “You’re either roots or a tumbleweed,” he said. “You can’t be both.”

I thought about this for a moment and shook my head. “I don’t know if that’s true,” I said.

I grew up in the Texas panhandle, in the land of tumbleweeds. They rolled down University Avenue, cartwheeled across the pavement outside the Dollar Western Wear, lodged under pickup trucks barreling down I-27. My hometown smells like crude oil and cow manure. It’s a flat, treeless place, with endless amounts of red dirt, barbed wire, and horizon.

Each month, my parents would shuttle us into the minivan and drive south, to our grandparents’ pecan farm near Big Spring. The tumbleweeds and oil derricks and cotton fields that make up the west Texas landscape were as unremarkable to me as the gray, fabric seats of our Ford Aerostar. It was the first landscape that ever felt to me like home.

I wonder if that wide horizon is to thank for the insatiable urge to find out what was on the other side. Because once I left, I didn’t stop: Boston; Washington, DC; the coast of Maine; central Alabama; and, finally, Wisconsin.

There was something addictive about it. Each place became an exercise in shedding something old and acquiring something new, a constant re-invention of place and self and identity.

And there was so much to be found. In Washington, I came to love the concrete smells and many-bodied sounds of the city, the row houses and empanada stands, the known rituals of walking up and down the Metro escalators instead of standing on them. In Maine, I fell in love with snow, with waves crashing into rock, with the fierce independence of remote, roadless communities. In Alabama, I witnessed the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, honored Rosa Parks in the days after she died, and chronicled the brave and humbling stories of civil rights legends.

“Face it,” Jim said, raising his glass in my direction, “you are a tumbleweed.”

What I learned from tumbleweeds isn’t evident in old western movies: that the destination is less important than the distance traveled, than the arc and route of getting from there to here, what you pick up and what you let go of along the way. In that sense, we’re all tumbleweeds, dispersing our seeds and charting our courses.

  ***

 A lot of people have written about home—the joy of finding it, the desire to escape it, the pain of losing it. Maya Angelou describes the “ache of home” that “lives in all of us.” To Angelou, home is something to long toward, a mythical place where one might vulnerably, peacefully be oneself.

Wendell Berry describes home as an active state, as the primary lens through which we learn about, well, everything else. “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,” he writes, “but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” To understand the far-flung places, it seems we must first understand that which is right in front of us.

And, in honor of the cowboy poets of my homeplace, Andy Wilkinson reassures the weary wanderer, “When you wonder where you’re going, where you’ve been, and where you are, remember that the Wise Men followed nothing but a star…. Without the map, the road is still the road”—though elsewhere he warns, “The road that takes you cannot take you back.”

Each time we step out into the world, we have to learn these lessons all over again, for ourselves.

In all the wandering, I never stopped to consider what might be lost. It is a big place, west Texas, so vast and windswept that you sometimes feel you’re the only living thing for miles. There is a stillness there that to outsiders may feel stifling but to me has always offered room to breathe; time slows down and you can consider things. Yet when you leave a place and don’t go back, it can grow hard to claim it as your own. And so, after a while, I began to feel anchorless—a citizen of the United States, if not a particular one.

The truth about tumbleweeds is that sometimes they come to rest. They catch in barbed wire fences, in the gnarled roots of mesquite trees, in the muddy banks of the Brazos. When they land in a wet place, their branches soak up the moisture, and they loosen. Sometimes they dissolve. Sometimes they end up in a field, a whole cluster of them, and get caught in the rows of soybeans or cotton and stay there.

Against a backdrop of uncertainty—what will happen to the economy? who will lead our state? who will lead our nation?—the notion of rooting down has developed an appealing shine. This is no longer a pit stop, a temporary pause while planning other journeys. We woke up one day and realized we were home.

So this is our experiment: What do we lose when we put down roots—and what do we discover? How can we gather and disperse while we remain stationary? I am not a mystic or a deeply spiritual person, but I do believe one can experience stillness in a way that is active and inspired by a sense of seeking. Though we have decided to plant ourselves in this place, we still crane our necks to take in the horizon, the way the sun sets over the neighbor’s trees, the sound of urban wilderness at early morning light. There is an adventure and a purpose in this rooted place, and it’s our job now to find it.

originally published in ON LOST & FOUND, Spring 2012

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